The Beauty of Christmas: Giving is Better than Receiving

I asked our church a question that I need to ask myself again and again. Do we browse the Christmas deals, door busters, or whatever scares the pants off you enough to get you to the store or to drop the item into the online cart before you miss out for our own wish list or for the others that we are shopping for? Hmmm, Kind of a question that puts into perspective our proclivity to selfishness, a little part of that dark underbelly to Christmas in the 21st Century, the not so beautiful side of Christmas. But there is a part to Christmas that is overwhelmingly beautiful–giving.

The beauty of giving is what I love about the times we can get out and serve or bless with no strings attached. We are not giving to a charity that is offering us coupons, or half-off at Knott’s Berry Farm. We are not giving to get but giving to give. And our church has learned over its short lifetime to give and give. One of our favorite traditions comes each Christmas as we give to our partner church to help those less fortunate have a little more love during Christmas. Getting overlooked at other times of the year might be bad enough, but being overlooked at Christmas can simply turn a joyful season into a hopeless time of year. May that never be.

This time of year can be the most impacting, memorable, heart pounding—simply beautiful space on the calendar when we slow down to make it about its real meaning and motivations of kindness, mercy and blessing. This season opens us to  life-changing moments as Christmas runs deep with the work of Jesus. But not just his work once done long, long ago…his ongoing work in us that manifests in goodness shared all around. At least that is what it should be as those who can bless those in who have need.

Christmas should draw us together, rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged, well off or underwhelmed, loved or unloved, difficult or easy, in similar ways that the cross levels the playing field. All are equal at the foot of the cross, and all are equally deserving of Christmas’ benefits as rich and poor gathered around the manger. The story of Jesus is for everyone from all backgrounds with no favorites, no secret codes that get us in early, no membership rewards, no extra benefits. Nope, we all share a common bond as humanity, a common identity as we share in that distinction we all carry as image bearers of our creator. Christmas should remind us to think of those like us but different than us, like us in that essence of humanity but different in background, heritage or story, like us in heart and soul, but different in social standing. Here we can help all have a little more equal footing as the baby born in that manger smiles bright on each of us with his love.

And hopefully reflected through us as we spread love to those in need of more love.

For me, I love the season of joy that Christmas brings. No matter what I might long for in this year, I love the opportunities where we get to be a blessing to others. One of my highlights of the year is how we can demonstrate our love for our partner church in a simple but profound way by giving toys to the children of their community, some in the church and some in the neighborhood.

About this time last year, our church, The Connection Churchpartnered with a struggling, inner-city, under-resourced church—Faith Community Church in South Central LA. The partnership emerged easily and wonderfully as God knit the hearts of two pastors together. Two churches led by pastors who look drastically different simultaneously share a common vision to love and serve their community with all the gusto that they can muster up.

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As we have aimed to come alongside a church that loves their neighborhood but lacks the resources to fulfill their vision, I love seeing the partnership develop over the year. And this Christmas has shown the fruit of a relationship forged in love. Last year, we were able to share a smidge over 50 toys for the church to pass out to their children and friends of their children. When we heard that some of these kids may not even get one gift for Christmas, our hearts simply broke. How could this be? We have not walked in their shoes, so we could not imagine what it must be like to wake up on Christmas morning to have no toys under the Christmas tree. Perhaps there is not even a Christmas tree at the front window.

50 toys were handed out to 50 children. We saw God use us as an instrument of blessing to those who needed it the most.

But we heard that more could have been done. When we first initiated conversations with Pastor Perades so close to Christmas, too close to do more last year, we asked how many toys would they want/need. He further explained that if they had 50 gifts, they would have 50 children there to receive the gifts, and if they had 100 gifts, they would have 100 children there. As the word would get out, they would see children from the poor neighborhood flood to the Christmas celebration.

Therefore, this year we redoubled our efforts wanting to see twice the number of kids receive a ray of love during their Christmas.  People from our little church plant spread out throughout the shopping center, box-stores, and malls to gather toys and gifts for those less-privileged. They carefully selected toys that could be enjoyed by toddlers, preschoolers, youngsters, boys, girls, tweeners and children of all ages. When the collection time came to an end, we were able to take 107 gifts, plus-or-minus one to South Central. Christmas would not skip these kids once again.

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In serving and partnering, I love how we get to play our role and no more. We deliver the gifts a couple of days ahead of Faith Community’s Christmas service with no strings attached. They get to do what is best for their people, for their community, and we do not have to be there to receive the glory. Faith Community gets to be the visible representation of God’s love to the children and their families.

Now, let me explain why this giving gesture and participation with the needy has quickly become one of my favorite days of the year. We get to be a blessing on their terms and not ours. And blessing really becomes the movement of this partnership. The blessing is mutual as we learn and receive from them as well.

To me, the gesture of generosity is nice, but when Pastor Perades receives our gift, he shows such incredible gratitude which profoundly moves me. I tell him that I come just for a chance to eat good food at his favorite restaurants, but really, I come to feel the joy he exudes when God answers prayers. I am always blown away by how touched he is that people would get up out of their comfortable world to enter his and join him on his level for a bit. He shares story after story of how God meets them in their hour of need, never growing to callous to be amazed. Yet, I know his struggle of ministering in South Central is real. But I get to hang out with a guy who shows sweet perseverance through the struggle. His heart is so big, and his joy so great; he knows how to express the beauty of Christmas.

When he grabbed the bags with me out of our car, he just lit up. When we placed the bags down on the table and he lingered to look the toys and unwrapped presents over, while we grabbed more out of the car, I knew he was touched. When he suddenly and joyfully blurted these are the good toys, these are not no dollar store toys. No, these are the primo ones! We get Build-A-Bear, skateboards, Disney dolls, games and on the list goes for all ages to be blessed. He tells me all I need to know to know we are in the middle of a good partnership.

Now, it would be cool to be there when the toys are actually received by the children, some more expressive and others more stoic, but this is not our day it is the children’s day. And St. Nick didn’t wait around to see the faces of people brighten; he gave to give knowing that was simply enough.

But in America, we like happy endings, so I needed to text Pastor Perades Sunday afternoon to catch his summation of how the event went for their church and community. I knew he was putting on the full-court press to get all the neighborhood’s kids there that were in need of a special Christmas treat, not just one more toy to add to their collection, but a real demonstration of love. He was grabbing people on our way out of the parking lot to lunch to make sure they knew what was up.

Thus, I anticipated a good report. But what I got really blew me away as I previously posted Pastor Perades thoughts of realism when it comes to giveaways. He has not found gimmicks to be as evangelistically fruitful as we often think. Yet giving away love should always be at the heart of how we live. After that, the rest is up to God. But when you tie together relationships, community, love, the story of Christmas and a bit extra in the gifts department and a few other factors I am sure I am unaware, you can get a great moment, a beautiful moment, a moment in which 16 people give their lives to Jesus. This is where the church lives out their mission on their own feet with a little nudge from their partners down the way in Orange County. Oh, imagine what could happen if more smaller churches partnered together. Hmm, sounds like a good post for the days between Christmas and New Year’s as we reflect on values for the coming year.

Christmas doesn’t get any better than when people accept the greatest gift into their heart, a gift that forever changes them. And Faith Community got to play a big part in helping see the gift of Jesus actualized in these people. And we played a part in that too, a small but essential part.

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What are your favorite memories of giving this Christmas?

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Partnering With An Inner-City Ministry: A Little But Powerful Church

What we see is not always what is seen. I found this out this weekend when we went up to work with a church we are partnering with in South Central LA.

The story of how this partnership started is fantastic and deserves a place on this blog in the coming days. However, it is incredible to see a little church plant like what we are part of reaching into another community to serve the under resourced. Our church has started partnering with an inner-city church, Faith Community, down the way from where the Rodney King riots climaxed 23 years ago.  Faith Community is a little but powerful church with a great history. Two churches with similar hearts to serve their community have joined together to see Jesus’ name lifted up. Both churches have such passion for the people in their neighborhoods, yet the two churches look and feel super different.

One church resides in South Orange County while the other sits in the middle of urban blight with liquor stores dotting the neighborhoods, and metal gates surrounding most properties. Safety and security are held at a premium in the neighborhood of Faith Community Church while South Orange County is known nationwide for their high ratings on being safe towns to live in. Furthermore, the two communities couldn’t be more distant on the poverty/wealth spectrum.

Nonetheless, the two churches have the beginnings of a partnership because of a common vision to be a blessing in the place they have been located. Both churches strive to care for those less fortunate, to serve the community, and to proclaim Jesus’ love. Both churches have felt a common call both in their community and for each other. What we have to offer is some expertise in some small ways to help Faith Community take steps toward a long standing vision. All we want to do is help them become more of what they are already doing.

Some of the things I love about partnering with this wonderful church include:

New relationships. I love the young and old. I have met talented young people who can sing, dance and ball. I have met tough, indomitable deacons who just cannot be held back. One man, Frank, is out there working every time we come. Either he is painting, or putting in flooring, or helping fix odds and ends around the building. Frank Faith Community Frank recently turned 80, but I think he could put many an 18-year-old to shame with his muscles.

Learning from others: Each and every time I go, I learn from the stories of these people. Their faith, their prayers, their passion is incredible. To a person, the people of Faith Community have a story worth telling. I wish we could all get to know them and where they have come from. 

Vision: In the midst of overwhelming circumstances, the pastor of this church has incredible vision. The building is old and quirky. It comes with its challenges. The neighborhood wreaks with despair. The members have their own burdens. Hope is not a commodity in reserve, yet the pastor sees what God can do to transform a church and through this church to transform a community. I’ll close with a story that illustrates this. 

In partnering with Faith Community, we wanted to help them see their vision become a reality. Pastor, which essentially is his name around the church as it is spoken with such honor by his people, says he wants this church to be so relevant that the community could not live without them. One way that they desire to be relevant is in tutoring students from the middle school across the street. Literally, the middle school is 100 ft. from the church building. Faith Community hopes to turn one of their rooms into a tutoring center. The rooms are small, and the building is old and in need of tender loving care. And this is happening now as both churches move forward in this vision to help kids as young people in the inner city have less than ideal structure at home for help with school. Faith Community would like to fill this void and be a blessing to young people.

Now, when we found the church, their room was unusable. The electrical had issues, the ceiling needed help, and on the list went. Pastor, a gifted minister and artist in his own right, came with no skills, only a vision. However, the vision seemed impossible as the skill set to renovate a room was not within the church. The people did not know how to make the room into what they wanted. Second, the church had little to no resource to make this happen.

When we were connected with the church, we immediately caught their vision and hoped we could play a role in remodeling this room into a safe, clean and sharp looking tutoring center—a blessing to the neighborhood. Now, through a few workdays over the year, we have made some progress. But we are going at the pace that the church can handle in order to make this their project. We do not want to simply do it for them. Our goal is to come alongside of them. We want to facilitate what they want to see happen. And it has been awesome watching the two churches work side-by-side in this endeavor. A real partnership is forming.

On our last work day this weekend, we were able to put up a drop ceiling, which was the highest hopes that pastor had for this room. However, he did not even ask for that specifically up front as he thought the price was too high. As we dialogued over several weeks, and this idea was suggested Pastor, never short on words, became speechless as he tried to tell how much he had wanted that specific idea but hesitated to ask. We knew it was costly, but also knew we could find a way.

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As a church plant, we need to be creative in where we find our materials as our budget is slim. Long story short, we were able to salvage materials from an office building that was going to be torn down in order to make brand new, beautiful apartments in Laguna Niguel. We donated these pieces for a drop ceiling to our friends in LA.

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But what seemed like a simple task of installing drop ceiling quickly became a challenging task as the walls, ceiling and floor were anything but level. Nothing went at 90° angles. Nothing seemed straight. No matter, that did not detour guys from finding a way.

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When our day was wrapping up, the workers were feeling a mix of satisfaction with finishing a difficult piece in the project and disappointment that lights were not installed yet. This does not even include the experience we had to know how much nicer things could look. This is what happens when we bring our culture into a situation. We see what we see in comparison to what things could look like in South Orange County or in Newport Beach.  This is not what the people of Faith Community saw.

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Pastor came in at the end of the work and gushed with gratitude. He saw the vision beginning to come into focus. As he put it, we were putting shape to their vision. This warmed my heart, as our goal all along has been to be a true partnership. We do not simply want to go into the city to do something that makes us feel good. We want real partnership. What we can offer is helping a wonderful, little church have a pathway to their vision.

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While we worked together, we each saw things differently; good but differently. The people in LA were so appreciative of the steps taken forward, while we thought we could have done so much more. We know access to money and materials is not hard to come by for us if we put our minds to it, but the folks in LA have a completely different world to compare with what they saw happening.

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Pastor concluded by saying he can start to see what the room can look like when it is finished, painted, and decorated. He told of how he could see students being tutored by people from Faith Community. He believed that kids would say one day that their life was saved because of this tutoring room. Stop, and pause here. Read that again. Kids’ lives can be saved, because of this little room. I believe it too. I believe it deep in my bones.

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Sometimes we see one thing, while those living in the place see something totally different. Perspective can be so helpful.

In conclusion, I love learning from my friends in LA. I love asking them to tell me what they see, because they see their situation so differently than we do.

Has there been a time that you have had your perspective changed or learned from another culture?

Blessed To Be A Blessing

As a child, I hated hearing the saying, ‘It is better to give than to receive’. I pressed my imagination as far as I could, and I could never figure how it might be better to give than to receive. When Christmas came, all I wanted was to receive presents. As a youngster, I could not see farther than my own two hands could reach.

But when I grew up and had a child of my own, I began to understand more profoundly than ever why it is better to give than to receive. We catch a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said it is better to give than to receive when our children enthusiastically rip into their Christmas presents. Their giddiness, anticipation, and unfettered joy makes what we receive pale in comparison to what we so gladly give. Recently, I had the privilege to experience the joy of giving at a whole new level. Our church, The Connection  has been looking to find a sister church we can partner with. Long before we joined the team, they wanted to find an inner-city church, under resourced but working hard to impact their community. We hoped that our experience working cross-culturally might help us connect with a multicultural church in the inner city. We wanted to serve the “other”—people different from us. I made some phone calls to find churches that might fit our desired outcome, and the Greater LA District of Foursquare churches suggested a pastor slugging it away in South Central LA. I excitedly called the name I was given, Pastor Terry Perades of Faith Community Church. I shared the heart of our church to be a blessing and serve this church. We looked for a true partnership where we could receive from them what they had and give what we had. Soon it was clear this church fit perfectly to what we were looking for. It was like a match made in heaven. Pastor Terry and this church making a difference in their community had been praying for years as we had for a partnership like this.

I knew we connected with the right church when I heard how Pastor Terry cared for his community. As an African-American pastor, he ministers to kids coming from broken homes. He has made it his aim to be a father figure to the kids in his church, and he does. He shows up at their schools regularly to find ways to help the kids succeed. Furthermore, he loves on the children of the neighborhood. They put up a portable basketball hoop in the church parking lot and saw kids flock to play some ball. He thought, I could cook them food at one of their houses and have a few kids, or I could cook food here and serve a lot of kids. So Pastor Terry offered the kids dinner. He invited some of the youngsters to help him cook. The kids came in and helped enthusiastically. Pastor Terry did not talk about Jesus but simply exampled Jesus to these kids. At the end of the day and without any prompting, the children asked if he had any Bibles. As any good pastor would, Pastor Terry ran in and grabbed as many Bibles as he had on hand. These children from the neighborhood began coming to the church and more than that, they gave their lives to Jesus. I quickly learned the heart of a pastor in the inner city.

The beginning of a partnership took place as we talked on the phone. We then hoped to collect toys from our people at the Connection Church to bless the children of South Central LA for Christmas. Our church asked if our people could buy new toys to donate to children they had never met. As a little, upstart church, we hoped to get 50 toys for these disadvantaged children. All this happened so fast as we started the whole process the first week of December. We only began our assignment at the Connection Dec. 1. But God was in this, and the church resonated with the vision.

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By the time we came to our first in person meeting with Pastor Terry the Thursday before Christmas, we had 50 toys to bring with us. Pastor Clayton and I piled the gifts in the back of his truck and drove up to LA. When Terry and Clayton met, they hit it off immediately. Pastor Terry began sharing stories of the children they were reaching. He told one story of transformation that blows your mind. Often kids come to their church unable to read, which as he said is not uncommon in these neighborhoods. He explained that as their parents work so long each day that no one has the time to help the children with their school work and reading. Pastor Terry told us how the church embraced these children who were illiterate. They helped tutor them and give them hope to excel in school. Now, some of these kids are thriving and in college. We loved listening to Pastor Terry’s passion. We could have listened to his stories for hours, but we had gifts to deliver.

At this, Pastor Terry directed us to a side room where the gifts could be safely stored until their Sunday Christmas celebration. When Pastor Terry saw all the gifts laid on the table, he began getting choked up. As a father figure to many of these kids, he knew intimately how much these gifts would impact them. He couldn’t put into words what this would mean to these kids. As he spoke from his heart, we knew we were simply walking in the steps God was guiding us into. I am so excited to be part of a church that thinks beyond themselves—a church that sees giving as better than receiving. I’ll never forget my 2013 Christmas as we began a partnership with a church doing an incredible work in LA. I am reminded once again; we are blessed in order to be a blessing.

Do you have any examples of when it was better for you to give than to receive?